Rice, Gates trip signals united front
The Secretaries of State and Defense set out for the Middle East to make a case for US initiatives.
As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrive together in Egypt Tuesday for an unusual joint tour through the Middle East, the statement they make before even opening their mouths will be loud and clear.Skip to next paragraph
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The Bush administration's divisions over America's approach to the world are a thing of the past, the duo will be saying, and now a united US foreign-policy team wants results.
In Egypt, Secretaries Rice and Gates will promote President Bush's idea for an international conference later this year to spur moderate Arab states to assist in creation of a Palestinian state living peacefully with Israel. Later, in Saudi Arabia, they will press the regime to play a more cooperative role in Iraq, among other things by holding out the specter of an emboldened Iran if Iraq crumbles.
But the subtext of the tour will be the new unity of vision in US foreign policy.
"There's no question that State and Defense are singing more from the same song sheet under Rice and Gates than under [Colin] Powell and [Donald] Rumsfeld," says Raymond Tanter, a US foreign policy expert who worked with Rice in the first Bush White House. "They bring together the weight of US force and the promise of its diplomacy, two pillars that previously didn't always stand together."
One of Mr. Bush's objectives in naming Gates to replace Mr. Rumsfeld in November was to mend the divisions that developed between the State Department and the Pentagon, in particular over Iraq policy but also over the Arab-Israeli conflict and other foreign-policy issues. In Iraq, the divisions were seen as one reason for a series of disastrous policy decisions and setbacks in conditions on the ground.
Both Rice and Gates are seen to be focused on getting results now, but with one eye on long-term goals. Since the beginning of this year, Rice has taken on the Arab-Israeli conflict as her best opportunity to leave a lasting accomplishment and to boost Bush's foreign-policy legacy, analysts say. Gates is more focused on righting the Iraq war so that a precipitous withdrawal is avoided and US interests in the region are protected.
But the joint trip is more about making a statement – in particular to Saudi Arabia, a US ally that has become increasingly prickly over the past year.
"With the Saudis, it's a calculation, you're all smiles, but at the same time you're saying the fact the two of us are here together means you can't play one off the other," says Lawrence Korb, a Pentagon official during the Reagan administration now at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "It says there are no differences between State and Defense on this. It doesn't leave the other side any room to maneuver."
The US has become increasingly concerned about Saudi actions it sees as undermining the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Behind-the-scenes frustrations with the Saudis broke out into the open Sunday when the US ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, accused the Saudis of working at cross purposes with the US in Iraq.